Tara Wesely is attending the Rivers for Life meeting in Thailand. She is assistant manager of environmental sustainability at Aveda Corp. and a fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program.

Monday, 1 Dec 2003

RASI SALAI, Thailand

Bamboo amazes me. You can eat it, cook with it, build with it, even decorate with it. I slept on a woven bamboo floor last night, surrounded by bamboo walls and beams in one of the huts constructed for the Second International Meeting of Dam-Affected People and Their Allies (or Rivers for Life, for short).

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Very little of the construction of this village was underway just five days ago. Construction that was supposed to begin several months ago was delayed by significant flooding during the rainy season, and then rice harvesting took priority, and then the need to appease the spirits of the river.

If you build it, will they come?

But that was the situation five days ago. Today, we are awaiting the arrival of some 300 people from some 60 countries around the world. Many have traveled for several days and across continents to participate in this meeting.

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Rather than pad the pockets of a hotel, organizers wanted to be able to benefit Rasi Salai, a dam-affected community. Rasi Salai villagers constructed a dormitory, washrooms, and bathrooms of handmade bricks. These structures will become the School of the River, an environmental education center for visitors and residents in this area. Additional temporary structures, nearly 20 sleeping and workshop huts, were hand-built in the last two weeks. The crew from Pak Mun (a dam-affected community we will visit later in the week) was noticeably efficient — clearly, they have had practice, having built long-lasting Mun River Village #1 (Ban Mae Man Yuen Nueng) to protest the construction of the Pak Mun dam in their community.

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When I arrived yesterday, the place was looking rather festive, with banners waving and music pumping. Today construction crews are still pounding out some last-minute structures, but we are mostly ready, just waiting for the people to arrive.

Susanne Wong of International Rivers Network, one of the many meeting organizers, and I went in search of someone who could walk us to the Mun River (Mae nam mun) so we could mark the walk with blue ribbon and signs for the participants. We asked someone whose Thai was better than ours (most anyone) how to ask to “go to the river” (Pai mae nam mun?) hoping that someone would be willing to walk us there. A couple of people pointed us in the general direction, but we really wanted an actual guide. Instead, we were roped into moving tables to the main sala to set up the interpretation equipment. A number of languages will get playtime at this meeting: Chinese, English, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai.

Several tables later, we found a villager named Mil who was willing to guide us and together we made our way to the river, past some cows, a patch filled with four-leaf clovers (!), and some serious mud. Fishers in wooden boats dotted the horizon. The river seemed alive and well. We kicked off our shoes, rolled up our pants, and waded in — how could we not? There is just something about water …

Tuesday, 2 Dec 2003

RASI SALAI, Thailand

I have dog envy. Several puppies are enjoying the attention of some 300 people gathered for Rivers for Life: The Second International Meeting of Dam-Affected People and Their Allies. I’ve made the mistake, several times now, of making friendly-like with the pups, ominously named Osama, Saddam, Bush, and Blair. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Bush is a biter and doesn’t know when to quit. I have a couple of bruises from the pup already.

At dinner last night, one of the advisory committee members told me his hope for the meeting is to put “fire in our bellies, steel in our backbones, and hope in our hearts.” Though food is probably not the true barometer of the success of a meeting like this, Rasi Salai villagers have been cooking up spicy local specialties like fermented fish (plaaraa pla) that have my belly already on fire, and today is only the first day of the meeting.

During breakfast, I spoke to someone who had also participated in the first meeting in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1997. We had trouble finding people to invite for that meeting — maybe 17 countries were represented. The second time around, coordinator Aviva Imhoff of International Rivers Network had to turn people away. More than 60 nations are represented here today.

The Curitiba meeting was successful on several fronts. Participants learned they are not alone in their struggles. You can be told that what is happening in your country is happening all over the world, but until you actually talk with other affected people, you can’t really understand this. They also found that by creating alliances they can improve the effectiveness of their campaigns.

Rasi Salai is a success story and a fitting site for a second meeting. Some would say the Rasi Salai Dam was a disaster since it was first proposed. The dam was supposed to irrigate more than 13,000 acres when it was completed in 1994. Currently, however, the Rasi Salai Dam is utterly useless. The reservoir sits atop a huge salt dome and the water is too salty for irrigation. The intended benefits of the dam are overshadowed by negative impacts on local villagers and the environment. More than 15,000 people lost farmland when the reservoir was filled. The dam blocked fish migration routes. The largest freshwater swamp forest along the Mun River was destroyed. Villagers lost an important source of food, traditional medicines, fish habitat, flood management, and water treatment.

For several years, affected people have rallied for the permanent decommissioning of Rasi Salai Dam. In a victory for villagers in July 2000, the Thai government agreed to open all seven sluice gates to let the river run free. Villagers are still demanding that the gates be permanently open.

At this meeting, we celebrate the victory of our Rasi Salai friends as a victory for all.

Wednesday, 3 Dec 2003

RASI SALAI, Thailand

The community wake-up call was at 5:30 this morning. The bamboo rhythms are much gentler than my alarm clock at home, but it didn’t make it any easier for me to roll out of my cocoon inside the mosquito net and bamboo-and-rice-thatch hut.

The vans left at 7 a.m. for a field trip to visit the Pak Mun Dam. I was supposed to be on one of those vans, but late last night I swapped with Emilie Lewis, an intern at the South East Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN) who was recruited to help provide Spanish translation for the Colombian, Guatemalan, Mexican, and Spanish contingents of the group.

I’ll now be going on the Rasi Salai field trip, which leaves later and returns five hours earlier than the Pak Mun trip. After two full days at the Rivers for Life meeting, I’m secretly pleased about the swap, if only because it means I will have time for a shower this evening before the Pak Mun trip returns.

The Pak Mun field trip will visit the confluence of the Mun and Mekong rivers and meet with the villagers at the Pak Mun Dam reservoir and protest village, many of whom have put their lives on the line in the fight to have their river restored.

The highly controversial Pak Mun Dam was completed in 1994. More than 20,000 people have been affected by drastic reductions in fish populations and other changes to their livelihoods.

In a victory for the villagers, the Thai government agreed to open the dam gates for a year to conduct studies on fisheries, social impacts, and electricity supply in June 2001. The villagers conducted their own research and found that 152 species of fish had returned to the river after the gates were opened. In November 2002, however, the Thai government decided to close the gates for eight months each year, so the villagers’ struggle continues.

I was visiting Thailand last year when Pak Mun Dam protesters made the news. Their protest village, Long-Lasting Mun River Village, had been set on fire while many of its residents were gone, protesting in Bangkok. Thai authorities insisted the protesters set fire to their own village to call attention to their cause.

I’ve wanted to visit the site of the ongoing Pak Mun Dam struggle for more than a year and was really looking forward to the trip, but I’ve also gotten rather chummy with some of the Rasi Salai villagers who insisted I come to see their beautiful Mun river and the gates of the dam they fought to open. And drink rice wine.

With characteristic Thai hospitality, our hosts have been cooking three meals and two snacks per day for 300 people, according to finicky diet specifications — spicy, not spicy, vegetarian, vegan — all the while refusing any compensation for their efforts. All they have asked in return is that we come, listen to their story, and celebrate their victory.

The vans for Rasi Salai are leaving, so I’m off …

Thursday, 4 Dec 2003

RASI SALAI, Thailand

I feel like a new person now that I have showered. We received a gentle reminder from the organizers this morning not to leave the tap running while showering, brushing teeth, washing clothes; this is a water conference, after all, and we’ve been running short. Cold, short, and wet is far better than dry and dusty.

Mun’s the word: the Mun River near Rasi Salai, Thailand.

I could hear a distant loudspeaker making announcements in Thai this morning as I walked to the canteen area, but I couldn’t make out its message. On the shores of the Mun River yesterday, a similar loudspeaker bellowed in the background as we listened to the villagers tell their story of struggle against the Rasi Salai Dam. I later learned that the loudspeaker was shouting, “Come to the river if you have a boat, come to the river and see the foreigners.” Wooden boats showed up by the dozens to take a hundred of us downstream to visit a freshwater swamp forest affected by the Rasi Salai Dam.

Language is an enormous factor in meetings like this one. At a workshop on community-based research, a Colombian man speaks in Spanish, which is then translated into English for the entire group and then into Chinese, French, Hindi, Khmer, Thai. There is no universal language, or formula, for victory in the struggles against large dams.

Even the workshop on conducting community-based research emphasized the differences in the ways local knowledge can be presented and used. Collecting ancestral knowledge in Colombia has been invaluable for unifying the anti-dam movement. Community-based research in Thailand posed a hefty challenge to the government’s promised dam benefits. Local wisdom in Senegal provided more effective and efficient solutions to health problems caused by large dams than any research produced at a university.

Just as each river’s meandering path is unique, fluid, changing, so too are the struggles to keep them flowing. The participants are here to swap success stories, strategies, and even resistance songs. In order to strengthen the international movement, a participant from Brazil said it best: “We need to celebrate our allies’ victories and their enemies’ defeats as our own.”

Each struggle faces different foes — the World Bank, an electric company, a neighboring country. Dam-affected people in Cambodia, for example, have little voice in their struggle against the upstream Vietnamese dams whose sudden and unannounced releases have claimed Cambodian lives.

By the fourth day of this meeting, I think I’ve heard every variation on the “damn dam” theme and I’m mildly dreading this evening’s cultural presentations. I can’t sing, but the American contingent seems obliged to sing a Moon River medley in honor of the nearby Mun River.

Friday, 5 Dec 2003

RASI SALAI, Thailand

We — participants from 62 countries, people affected by dams, fighters against destructive dams, and activists for sustainable and equitable water and energy management — have met at Rasi Salai, Thailand. We have met on land which has been restored to life after being flooded by a dam. The gates of the dam are now open, the river flows once more, the crops have ripened, the fish have returned, community life is vibrant. The dam-affected people of Thailand offer to us and to all people of the world an example of determination and struggle to preserve rivers, identity, culture, and territory.

So begins the Rasi Salai declaration, which was drafted and distributed and adopted this afternoon along with 15 or so river-specific resolutions.

Then it was down to the Mun River with banners, flags, songs, and chants. At the river, the Rasi Salai headman gave a blessing and then we let 62 hand-crafted boats float down the Mun River, to show our solidarity for each others’ struggles. As the headman said, all our waters are connected, are one, as is our fight to save them.

Tonight we will dance and sing and dance some more. We are a vibrant group, in so many ways.

Did I mention that this week has been nothing like a typical week for me? I’m exhausted, not so much because it has been a long week (though it has). I’m exhausted more because meetings like these are important and inspirational but most of all they tend to highlight the work that remains to be done.

The movement of dam-affected people and allies has much to celebrate since our first meeting six years ago. And there is that much more to do.

I think one of the Brazilian participants said it best: “We don’t believe in Santa Claus or superheroes or that anyone else will save us. If anyone is going to save us it is going to be ourselves.”